Reclamation’s July 24-Month Study implements contingency operations in the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver #aridification #GreenRiver #SanJuanRiver #GunnisonRiver

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron):

The Bureau of Reclamation today released the July 24-Month Study, confirming declining hydrologic conditions for the Colorado River system. To protect Lake Powell’s target elevation, the study incorporates the implementation of drought operations under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA).

The July 2021 Operation Plan for Colorado River System Reservoirs 24-Month Study (July 24-Month Study) shows that the Lake Powell water year 2021 predicted unregulated inflow volume has decreased 2.5 million acre-feet in the six-month period between January and July 2021. The current forecast for WY2021 is 3.23 maf (30% of average).

In addition, 5-year projections released by Reclamation last week predicted a 79% chance that Lake Powell would fall below the DROA target elevation of 3,525 feet within the next year. That target elevation provides a 35 vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam and meet current operational obligations to the Lower Basin States of Arizona, California and Nevada.

Consistent with DROA provisions to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation, the July 24-Month Study includes adjusted releases from the upstream initial units of the Colorado River Storage Project Act to deliver an additional 181 thousand-acre feet of water to Lake Powell by the end of December 2021. The additional releases are anticipated to be implemented on the following schedule:

Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) planned releases July 16, 2021. The “Last Flush”. Data credit: USBR

The releases detailed above are in addition to the already established releases determined by operational plans for each of the identified facilities. The additional delivery of 181 kaf is expected to raise Lake Powell’s elevation by approximately three feet. The additional releases from the upstream initial units do not change the annual volume of water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead in WY2021, as those volumes are determined by the 2007 Interim Guidelines.

Reclamation publishes a 24-Month Study for Colorado River System reservoirs each month. The August 24-Month Study will set the operating conditions for Lake Mead and Lake Powell for the upcoming year. Reclamation will also release an update to the 5-year projections in early September.

Reclamation and the Colorado River Basin states continue to work together cooperatively to closely monitor projections and conditions and are prepared to take additional measures in accordance with the DROA.

Reclamation remains committed to reducing the collective risk of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead falling to critical elevations and will continue to work with entities in the Colorado River Basin to ensure that both facilities continue to function as authorized to meet the natural, municipal and agricultural needs of the basin.

To view the July and prior 24-month studies, visit http://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/studies.

Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

Aspinall Unit operations update: Releases to bump flows through the Black Canyon to 625 cfs, June 18, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Black Canyon National Park July 2020. Photo credit: Claire Codling/The Department of Interior

From email from Reclamation (Ryan Christianson):

Gunnison River flows have dropped off quickly over the last few days and there is a need for more water in the Gunnison River to meet the target of 1050 cfs, pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD). Therefore, releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 150 cfs tomorrow afternoon, June 18th at 2pm.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 475 cfs. After these release changes, flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 625 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

#UncompahgreRiver: Wrongful death suit filed over teen’s 2019 drowning in South Canal — The Montrose Press

South Canal. Photo credit: Delta-Montrose Electric Association via The Mountain Town News

From The Montrose Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

A Montrose family whose teenage son and dog drowned in the South Canal in 2019 hit the canal’s operating entity with a wrongful death suit on May 4.

Their attorney said Matt Imus and Emily Imus, parents of the late Connor Imus, are also pursuing a federal claim against the land management agencies involved with the canal. This is action is undergoing a required administrative resolution process and could proceed to a lawsuit, pending that outcome.

The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association’s attorneys say in filings that Connor’s death was the result of his own actions, when he apparently jumped into the canal to save his dog, Bella.

Both were swept away by the deceptively calm-looking water and drowned. Connor, a standout on the Montrose High School basketball team, was 17.

As the canal operator, the UVWUA had duties to Connor to mark the property as private and to make clear the dangers of the canal, the lawsuit argues. But per the suit, on May 5, 2019, there was not a chain, a fence or other means of closing off the canal, nor was there signage warning against trespassing and the dangers at the spot where Connor fell in.

The Imuses are suing for negligence resulting in wrongful death and under premises liability resulting in wrongful death, as well as asserting survivors’ claims. They assert UVWUA’s wrongful actions or omissions caused injury and damages to Connor, who lost his life, and also caused ongoing injury to his parents, who continue to suffer emotional distress, pain and grief because of their son’s death. The plaintiffs want a judge to determine compensation for their loss and suffering; the filing does not specify an amount.

The UVWUA’s attorneys said they had no comment at this time.

#Water worries abound as #drought wears on — The #Montrose Daily Press #runoff #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GreenRiver #DoloresRiver #GunnisonRiver

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Blue Mesa [Reservoir] is at about 345,000 acre feet and sits at 42% full, based on May data, which predict the reservoir will only hit just above 50-percent full — “not very good,” as Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Erik Knight put it.

“We’re lower than we were at any time in 2020. In 2018, we were below 250,000 acre feet by the end. We’re not projecting to go that low yet, but we’re heading in that direction, that’s for sure,” Knight said Friday.

“The reservoir is pretty low. Runoff hasn’t really kicked into gear, although I think that is starting now,” he added.

Although the Uncompahgre River is a bit bouncier and swelling with some snowmelt, Montrose County and the western side of the state remain locked in drought.

Colorado Drought Monitor map May 25, 2021.

Conditions in the county range from extreme drought to exceptional — the two worst levels — according to US Drought Monitor data.

So far, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, which serves about 3,500 shareholders, has been able to fill its contracts at 70%. The association’s storage “account” at Taylor Park Reservoir — which with Blue Mesa and other reservoirs is part of the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit — is full, UVWUA manager Steve Anderson said. (Taylor itself is not expected to fill at 100%, but UVWUA anticipates it will receive the full amount to which it is entitled from the reservoir.)

Taylor Park Reservoir

“I expect our account at Taylor to refill,” Anderson added. “We are storing second-fill water in Taylor right now and my expectation is for us to wind up the season with a full reservoir at Taylor. That means a lot to us, but that’s 100,000 acre feet and we need 600,000 acre feet to run the project. But that’s a good start.”

Ridgway Dam via the USBR

The storage account at Ridgway Reservoir is close to full, Anderson also said — of 21,000 acre feet of association water, a bit more than 300 acre feet have been used…

The water picture for the Grand Mesa and North Fork is worse than it is for Montrose, he said, and also pointed to the south, to the Dolores River.

Mcphee Reservoir

McPhee Reservoir, which the river feeds, is well below average and, the Cortez Journal reported Wednesday, irrigators with contracts for its water have been told to expect between 5 and 10% of their ordinary fulfillments.

“The Dolores is just horrible,” Anderson said. Only one-sixth of the water would ordinarily be delivered from McPhee is coming to users, he said. “That’s pretty sad. We’re fortunate in that respect, that we’re not in those kind of dire straits.”

[…]

Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

[Lake] Powell’s levels are within a whisker or two of being too low to sustain hydropower generation. If Powell drops below 3,490 feet elevation, that’s the danger zone, Anderson said in January. As of May 14, Powell was projected to end the water year at 3,543 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, although the agency also noted “significant uncertainty” at the time…

Flaming Gorge Reservoir July 2020. Photo credit: Utah DWR

Flaming Gorge has enough storage right now that it can bail out Powell in an absolute emergency, as it could release 2 million acre feet, Anderson said…

Back at home, the Aspinall Unit also has drought contingency plans that kick in as needed to maintain baseflows and satisfy the requirements of legal records of decision.

In dry years, flow targets are dropped and that helps keep Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs in the unit from running dry, Knight said.

Aspinall Unit operations update (March 22, 2021): 400 CFS in the Gunnison Tunnel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

East Portal Gunnison Tunnel gate and equipment houses provide for the workings of the tunnel.
Lisa Lynch/NPS

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel will be ramping up for the irrigation season and releases from the Aspinall Unit will be adjusted to keep Gunnison River flows near the current level of 400 cfs. There could be fluctuations in the river throughout the day whenever Tunnel diversions increase.

On Wednesday, March 24th testing of the Crystal powerplant will result in a brief period of high flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon and Gunnison Gorge. Crystal releases will be increased up to 1700 cfs over a couple hours before decreasing back to the current release rate.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 790 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 790 cfs for March.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 400 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 400 cfs. As Tunnel diversions increase, flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are expected to stay near 400 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit Forecast for Operations, February 19, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Aspinall Unit operations update #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #GunnisonRiver

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

#Climate’s toll on the #ColoradoRiver: ‘We can weather maybe a couple of years’ — AZCentral #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click here to read Ian James’ fantastic article about the current state of the Colorado River from stem to stern that’s running up at AZCentral.com. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

The warming climate is intensifying drought, contributing to fires and drying out the river’s headwaters, sending consequences cascading downstream.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colorado — Beside a river that winds through a mountain valley, the charred trunks of pine trees lie toppled on the blackened ground, covered in a thin layer of fresh snow.

Weeks after flames ripped through this alpine forest, a smoky odor still lingers in the air.

The fire, called the East Troublesome, burned later into the fall than what once was normal. It cut across Rocky Mountain National Park, racing up and over the Continental Divide. It raged in the headwaters of the Colorado River, reducing thick forests to ashes and scorching the ground along the river’s banks.

The fires in Colorado spread ferociously through the summer and fall of 2020 after months of extreme heat that worsened the severe drought.

As smoke billowed over the headwaters, the wildfires raised warning signs of how profoundly climate change is altering the watershed, and how the symptoms of heat-driven drying are cascading down the heavily used river — with stark implications for the entire region, from Colorado’s ranchland pastures to the suburbs of Phoenix…

Over the past year, the relentless hot, dry months from the spring to the first snows left the soil parched. The amount of runoff into streams and the river dropped far below average. With reservoirs sinking toward new lows, the risks of shortages are growing.

Much of the river’s flow begins as snow and rainfall in the territory of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which includes 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope. Andy Mueller, the district’s general manager, said the extreme conditions over the past year offer a preview of what the region should prepare for in the future.

“Climate change is drying out the headwaters,” Mueller said. “And everybody in the Colorado River Basin needs to be concerned.”

Mueller saw the effects while backpacking in Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness in the summer with his 19-year-old daughter. Above the tree line, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, they expected to see mushy green tundra. Instead, they found the ground was bone dry…

People who focus on the river have widely acknowledged the need to adjust to a shrinking system with less water to go around.

Many suggest solutions can be achieved through collaborative efforts — often with money changing hands in exchange for water — while working within the existing rules. Others say solutions shouldn’t fall on the backs of farming communities by taking away water that fuels their economies. Some people argue the river seems headed for a crash and its rules need to be fundamentally reimagined…

The deals between the seven states are designed to temporarily lower the odds of Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropping to critical lows over the next five years. The states’ representatives have yet to wade into the details of negotiations on what shortage-sharing rules will look like after 2026, when the current agreements expire.

Still unresolved are difficult questions about how to deal with the shortfall over the long term.

What’s increasingly clear is that the status-quo methods of managing the river are on a collision course with worsening scarcity, and that eventually something will have to give…

Watershed ‘thirstier’ with heat

Last winter, after a dry year, the Rocky Mountains were blanketed with a snowpack that was slightly above average. Then came extremely hot and dry conditions, which shrank the amount of runoff and flows into tributaries and again baked the soils dry.

[Andy] Mueller said the change occurred abruptly at the end of the snow season in the spring…

With the heat, some of the snow didn’t melt but instead evaporated directly into the air, which scientists call sublimation — something that has been happening more over the past two decades. The flows in streams dropped over the next few months, and then August brought record heat, which dried out the headwaters and fueled the fires through the fall…

In a 2018 study, scientists found that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the Upper Colorado River Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming. In other research, scientists estimated the river is so sensitive to warming that it could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise…

“A warmer atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere, and we’re seeing less runoff bang for our precipitation buck,” said Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher in Colorado. “We’ll still have wetter and drier years, but the baseline is very likely to be shifting downward, as it has in the last 20 years.”

And when extreme heat comes, it leaves less water running in tributaries and also translates into drier forests, leading to increased fire risk.

The soils were so dry over the past year that they soaked up moisture, contributing to below-average stream flows, said Megan Holcomb, a senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“You can think of it as like the dry sponge that you haven’t wetted in forever,” Holcomb said. “That kind of soil moisture deficit is not something that you rebound from immediately.”

Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, shows the effects of persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

After the hot spring came a dry summer. The lack of monsoon rains compounded the drought. And then came August, Holcomb said, when a map of record-hot temperatures hugged the Colorado River Basin like a “massive red handprint.”

In areas of western Colorado that drain into the river, it was the hottest and driest August on record, breaking the previous temperature record by 2 degrees F, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center.

The state usually gets its largest wildfires in June and July. But with the severe drought, the fires burned through August, and then exploded in October with unprecedented speed and intensity. The ultradry conditions, together with high winds, contributed to the three largest wildfires in Colorado history, which together devoured more than half a million acres.

In the future, rising temperatures will lead to more of these scorching summers.

Abby Burk of the conservation group Audubon Rockies noticed how low the river was in the summer when she went paddling in her kayak. In parts where the river was full and muddy a year earlier, she found bars of gravel. Where there once were channels to paddle through, she encountered dead-end lagoons.

In November, when Burk drove through the headwaters near the smoldering fires, she snapped photos of the hills and mountains, still golden-brown beneath a dusting of snow.

When the soil is so parched, it will always “take the first drink” before water reaches the streams, Burk said. “We need a lot more snow for many years to come to really replenish the soil moisture deficits that we’re seeing now.”

The fire scars will also bring challenges come spring, she said, when melting snow will send runoff carrying ash, debris and sediment into streams, potentially creating complications for water systems.

Burk said she’s hoping there will be a slow melt so the runoff comes gradually, without “bringing down the mountain into the river.”

Rancher and fly-fishing guide Paul Bruchez raises cattle on 6,000 acres near Kremmling. Bruchez has taken an active role in Colorado River issues ever since his family suffered from a critical water shortage during the 2002 drought. Photo credit: Russ Schnitzer via Aspen Journalism

A rancher looks to adapt

Paul Bruchez raises cattle on his family’s ranch in the headwaters near the town of Kremmling, where the Colorado River winds through pastures…

Bruchez has been involved in discussions about the river as a member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. And while he’s heard many people voice alarm about the watershed lately, Bruchez said he and other neighboring ranchers have been talking about the need to adapt to a river with less water since 2002, when severe drought came.

The flows dropped so low then that even ranchers with the longest-standing water rights, known as senior rights, couldn’t get it to their fields.

“Within this river basin, we have seen a change over time of the quantity and volume of water that is available. And in that same time, we’ve seen a growth of population that relies on it,” Bruchez said. “We knew this in 2002 when we hit that drought, that if we didn’t change how we operated, we weren’t going to survive.”

Since then, Bruchez and other ranchers have been talking about ideas for adapting…

The closer the region gets to a scenario of curtailing water allotments, Bruchez said, the more investors and representatives of cities and towns are going to be contemplating ways of securing water from elsewhere.

For people in agriculture, he said, “we need to be at the table or we’re going to be on the menu.”

[…]

Blue Mesa Reservoir, Curecanti National Recreation Area. Photo credit: Victoria Stauffenberg via Wikimedian Commons

‘It affects everybody’

One of the main tributaries that feeds the Colorado is the Gunnison River, which like the mainstem has shrunk during the heat-amplified drought. Along the Gunnison, cattle ranchers got less water last year and their pastures produced less hay.

The river’s low flows also forced an early end to the river rafting season on Labor Day weekend. After that, releases from a dam had to be cut back and the Gunnison was left much shallower than usual, with rocks protruding in stretches where boats would normally be drifting until the end of September.

Sonja Chavez via Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

The river has dropped to some of its lowest levels in years, said Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

The effects are visible at Blue Mesa Reservoir, one of the state’s largest, which has declined to less than half its full capacity.

Visiting the lake, Chavez walked on sandy ground that used to sit underwater.

Looking across the inlet where the river pours into the lake, she pointed to a gray line on the rock showing the high-water mark. During spring runoff, she said, the river in this channel can reach about 20 feet higher. But with the soil so parched, its level dropped.

“When we are dry in the Upper Gunnison Basin, it affects everybody downstream of us,” Chavez said. And the swings between high and low flows, she said, have made it difficult to plan how to operate the reservoirs…

In the Gunnison Valley, a local climate action group meets to talk about potential solutions. Some conversations have focused on how to manage forests that have grown thick with vegetation over the past century as federal agencies have focused mostly on putting out fires.

While the forests have grown thicker, warmer temperatures have enabled beetles to flourish, littering the mountains with dead trees.

Chavez and others want to prioritize efforts to make the forests healthier and more fire-resilient by thinning the trees through logging, mechanical treatments or controlled burns, which they say would make the whole watershed healthier. She said the federal government needs to be more involved and the region needs funding for these projects.

“Our big push this year is to do some watershed management planning and work with the Forest Service to identify zones of concern, or areas that we can treat,” Chavez said. “We’re worried if we had a big fire what would happen.”

Alongside those efforts, water managers are discussing ways of dialing down water usage…

Ranchers, farmers consider using less

One lifelong rancher who had a smaller-than-usual hay crop was Bill Trampe, who has worked on water issues for years as a board member of the Colorado River District.

His cattle graze on meadows near Gunnison where the grasses survive year after year. He was short of water to irrigate after mid-June, which left the pastures parched.

Palisade is just east of Grand Junction and lies in a fertile valley between the Colorado River and Mt. Garfield which is the formation in the picture. They’ve grown wonderful peaches here for many years and have recently added grape vineyards such as the one in the picture. By inkknife_2000 (7.5 million views +) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/23155134@N06/15301560980/, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Over the past two decades, only a few years brought good snowpack, he said, and ranchers have repeatedly had to weather the financial hits of years when they must buy hay for their cattle…

‘We need to set the terms’

In other parts of the river basin, some representatives of agricultural water agencies are worried about the potential consequences of paying farmers to leave land dry.

One such voice is J.B. Hamby, a newly elected board member of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, who said he’s concerned that while cities and sprawling suburbs continue to grow rapidly, agricultural communities are increasingly at risk. He said people in cities need to realize there is a priority system that shouldn’t be changed…

Arizona gets nearly 40% of its water from the Colorado River. Much of it flows in the Central Arizona Project Canal, which cuts across the desert from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson.

In 2020, Arizona and Nevada took less water from the river under the drought agreement among Lower Basin states, and in 2021 they will again leave some of their water in Lake Mead. The latest projections show Mead could fall below a key threshold by summer, which would trigger a shortage declaration and larger cutbacks in 2022…

Now, with less water flowing to farms, the amount of runoff into the Salton Sea has shrunk, leaving growing stretches of exposed lakebed that spew dust into the air. The dust is contributing to some of the worst air pollution in the country, and many children suffer from asthma.

Hamby said the Imperial Valley would have been better off without the water transfer deal. Looking at the proposed approach in Colorado, Hamby said, it seems to replicate what occurred in Imperial.

“When you tie money to water, you get users who become addicted to the money and don’t actually in the end start to want to farm anymore,” Hamby said. “That is really corrosive to the long-term survival, much less thriving, of rural communities when people get more hooked on money rather than the way of life and putting the water on the land.”

He argued that such an approach would be “subverting the whole priority system” and enabling cities to avoid taking cuts themselves…

‘Are we doing enough?’

At his ranch by the river, Bruchez said he wants to be on “the preventative side,” getting ahead of the looming problems instead of reacting. And that includes studying and promoting conservation, he said, because the bottom line is “we just all have to figure out how to use less water.”

In early 2019, Bruchez began talking with Perry Cabot, a researcher from Colorado State University, about a project that would help provide data on crop water use, impacts of reduced irrigation and strategies for conserving water.

Cabot gave a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable, and members supported the idea of a study. The project began in 2020 with about $900,000 in funding, including support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and groups including Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.

A group of nine ranchers participated and were paid for leaving some fields dry or partially dry, Bruchez said. More than 900 acres weren’t irrigated for the entire year, and about 200 acres were “deficit irrigated,” meaning they received less water.

Bruchez’s ranch totals about 6,000 acres. He participated on about 41 acres, where he stopped irrigating on June 15 and didn’t water the rest of the year.

“My end goal is to understand the impacts of water conservation for agriculture so that if and when there are programs to participate, agriculture is doing it based on science,” Bruchez said…

Paul Bruchez said he’s seen that when people talk about solutions, they often seem to draw boxes around different approaches like demand management, water conservation, climate change and forest management, but he thinks they’re all quite connected.

“It’s all the same conversation,” Bruchez said. “To me, the question just comes down to, are we doing enough, quick enough?”

[…]

“It’s that water that is provided by the Colorado River that ties us all together,” Mueller said. “And truly, when we recognize the importance of the Colorado River and how it ties us together, that’s when we succeed as a society.”

Ian James is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who focuses on water, climate change and the environment in the Southwest. Send him story tips, comments and questions at ian.james@arizonarepublic.com and follow him on Twitter at @ByIanJames.

#GunnisonRiver, with elevated selenium levels, faces review for reclassification — @AspenJournalism

This portion of the 58-mile mainstem of the Gunnison River just south of Whitewater has been designated as critical habitat for the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker, which are two species of endangered fish. Programs aimed at reducing salt and selenium in the waterway are showing signs of success. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil via Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Natalie Keltner-McNeil):

State water-quality officials will soon evaluate whether two water-improvement programs in the Gunnison River basin have successfully reduced a chemical that is toxic to endangered fish.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Division is analyzing five years of data on selenium levels in the Gunnison, where heightened selenium and salinity have harmed Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker populations.

If selenium levels stay at or below the state standard of 4.6 micrograms per liter in any of the segments of river that are analyzed by division staff, those segments will be reclassified from a water body that threatens aquatic life to one that meets state water-quality standards, said Skip Feeney, assessment workgroup leader for the Water Quality Control Division.

After analyzing selenium data, the division will submit a proposal after the first of the year to the CDPHE Water Quality Control Commission recommending a status change if necessary, Feeney said.

“Our goal is to provide an accurate, defensible proposal to the commission and let the commission make an informed decision,” Feeney said. In an October interview, he said he didn’t yet know “what the water-quality status is looking like.” He added: “That’s just part of the process — we’re just getting started.”

Reclassifying the river has been a goal since the establishment nearly a dozen years ago of the Selenium Management Program, a collaboration among government agencies, nonprofits and stakeholders.

Observers have found elevated selenium levels throughout the basin, but a key river segment of focus is the main stretch of the lower Gunnison that winds for 58 miles from Delta to the confluence with the Colorado River in Grand Junction. This section, which begins at the confluence with the Uncompahgre River, was designated in 1994 as essential to pikeminnow and razorback survival by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A map showing the main segment of the Gunnison River, between Delta and its confluence with the Colorado River, which has been designated as essential habitat for two endangered fish species. Map via Aspen Journalism

Historically, this segment, which runs through the basin’s most populated and developed corridor, has contained selenium levels toxic to the two species of fish, according to Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and a member of the Selenium Management Program.

During the last regulation cycle, which used data gathered from multiple different entities from 2010 to 2015, the calculated level for selenium in the mainstem of the Gunnison was 6.7 micrograms per liter, a level that is 2.1 micrograms above the state standard, according to MaryAnn Nason, the communications and special-projects unit manager at CDPHE.

Yet, the past five years of U.S. Geological Survey data show that selenium levels have stayed below 4.6 micrograms. Each yearly average was below 4.6, with the average for all five years sitting at 3.2, according to an analysis by Aspen Journalism.

Kanzer cautioned that the calculation using only USGS data was “not directly applicable to the CDPHE listing methodology” — because it doesn’t take into account all available data — but he said “it does tell a good story.”

To calculate the final selenium load for each segment in the Gunnison River, CDPHE is analyzing data from the past five years from the USGS; Colorado River Watch, an environmental advocacy organization; the state; and United Companies, a Grand Junction-based construction company that is required by the state to monitor selenium levels near the gravel pits that the company operates.

These are hills of exposed Mancos shale in Delta County. Selenium is a natural element found in the soil type that is common in the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism

Selenium’s origins and pathway to the rivers

Selenium is a natural element found in Mancos shale, a soil common throughout the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys in the Gunnison River basin. When irrigators transport water to and through their farms in open canals, selenium dissolves in the water and either percolates into groundwater or gets carried into drainage ditches that discharge into the Gunnison.

“Where we have good flows of water, (selenium) concentrations are not an issue because of dilution,” Kanzer said. “But smaller tributaries, smaller water areas or backwater areas where you don’t have good circulation, you get selenium that can accumulate in the ecosystem, really in the sediment and in the food web.”

Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker exist only in the Colorado River basin, said Travis Schmidt, a research ecologist for the Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center. The species are able to swim between the Colorado and Gunnison rivers with the aid of a fish passage at the Redlands Diversion Dam on the lower Gunnison, accumulating selenium and transferring the element to their offspring.

Selenium gathers in fish tissues when females ingest algae or smaller fish. It then is transferred to offspring during the egg-laying process, Schmidt said.

“Selenium replaces sulfur in protein bonds, so anything that lays an egg can transfer a lot of selenium to its progeny,” he said.

Once transferred to fish eggs, the element causes neurological, reproductive and other physiological deformities in a significant proportion of both species of fish, Schmidt said. A study that analyzed fish-tissue samples collected by federal and state agencies from 1962 to 2011 found that 63% of Colorado pikeminnows and 35% of razorback suckers exceeded healthy selenium tissue concentrations in the upper Colorado River basin.

Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier kneels by gated pipes in his family’s alfalfa field. He received funding to replace an unlined canal with the pipes in 2014 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Piping unlined canals, which is one of the primary methods used to prevent salt and selenium from leaching into the water supply, is critical to the protection of endangered fish in the Gunnison and Colorado river basins. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism
Aspinall Unit

’A happy, fringe benefit of salinity control’

Selenium was first addressed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 in a document written for the Bureau of Reclamation. The document analyzed the effects of the Aspinall Unit — a series of three dams on the upper Gunnison River — on Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker recovery. In the document, the service concluded that in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the Bureau of Reclamation had to increase spring flows downstream of the Aspinall Unit and initiate a management program to reduce selenium in the Gunnison. As a result, the Selenium Management Program was founded in 2009.

“It’s a two-prong type of plan,” Kanzer said of the program’s goals.

The first objective is to meet the state standard for dissolved selenium throughout the Gunnison River basin, particularly for the 58-mile main segment, Kanzer said. The second goal is to help transition the pikeminnow and razorback sucker from endangered populations to self-sustaining populations, Kanzer said.

Program members help irrigators obtain funding from the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Agriculture, said Lesley McWhirter, the environmental and planning group chief for the bureau’s Western Colorado Area Office. Individual farmers can apply for funding for on-farm irrigation projects through the Department of Agriculture, and ditch companies can apply for funding projects that deliver water to farms through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Salinity Control Program.

The goal of the salinity program, which was started in 1974, is to reduce salt loading into the Colorado River basin. The program awards grants to ditch companies every two to three years. In the last grant cycle, in 2019, the Bureau of Reclamation awarded 11 ditch companies a combined $37 million to line irrigation systems. Of the 11 companies, eight are located in Mesa, Montrose and Delta counties, where the Gunnison River runs, according to McWhirter.

Mancos shale is rich in salt and selenium. So, when farmers receive funding to reduce salt loads, selenium often decreases as well. This is exemplified by a USGS analysis that found selenium loads had decreased by 43% from 1986 to 2017 and by 6,600 pounds annually from 1995 to 2017.

“The selenium control is a happy, fringe benefit of salinity control,” said Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier.

Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier stands atop a diversion structure that was built as part of a project to improve irrigation infrastructure completed between 2014 and 2019. Kehmeier served as manager for the ditch-improvement project, which was 90% funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and serves 10 Delta County farms with water diverted from Surface Creek, a tributary of the Gunnison River. Lining and piping ditches, the primary methods used to prevent salt and selenium from leaching into the water supply, are critical to the protection of endangered fish in the Gunnison and Colorado river basins. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism

CDPHE plans to submit proposal in January

CDPHE plans to submit its proposal to the Water Quality Control Commission in early January, Nason said.

If the main segment of the Gunnison River is found to have selenium levels below the state standard, it would mean the Selenium Management Program is closer to obtaining the dual goals of fish protection and selenium reduction, Kanzer said.

Even if the main segment of the Gunnison is reclassified, the Selenium Management Program will continue efforts to reduce selenium in the Gunnison basin, Kanzer said. These efforts include data gathering and analysis and facilitating meetings among government agencies, nonprofits and stakeholders.

The Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker depend on the entire Gunnison basin, so other segments containing toxic selenium levels require reduction efforts. If any new research shows that fish are harmed by selenium at levels lower than 4.6 micrograms per liter, the state could lower the selenium standard, reclassifying segments of the Gunnison as a danger to aquatic life, Kanzer said.

“The jury’s still out — we’re still trying to understand what levels are acceptable and not acceptable,” he said. “There’s always room for refinement of that standard, and that dialogue is ongoing.”

After the division submits its proposal to the commission, the proposal will be released to stakeholders and anyone who has applied to receive hearing notices or track Colorado’s regulations. The public can submit their own proposals or comments by emailing the commission. In May, the commission will review all proposals and comments to make a decision on the river segment’s 2020 status, Feeney said.

This story ran in the Dec. 3 edition of The Aspen Times.

Aspinall Unit operations update November 12, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GunnisonRiver

#Drought expected to worsen this winter — The Gunnison Country Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Gunnison Country Times (Sam Liebl):

If the forecast holds true, the effects would be “exponential” for Gunnison Valley ranchers already hard hit by a dry summer that reduced hay production and rangeland forage by 30%, said Dan Olson with the Natural Resource Conservation Service field office in Gunnison.

“One year of this drought is crippling,” Olson said. It would be “a real challenge if we had multiple years like this one.”

The weather service issued its winter outlook for the U.S. on Oct. 15 and pinned many of its predictions for the western part of the country on the continuation of a La Niña, a band of cooler-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the Central Pacific. Those cool waters began showing up on satellite images in August, and the service forecasts the pattern to continue through the winter.

La Niña years favor precipitation and cooler temperatures in the Northern U.S. Winter storms from the southwest, which tend to dump snow on the San Juans and can produce powder days in Gunnison County, are less likely to occur during La Niña. This is linked to the Pacific Jet Stream staying north of the Southwest U.S. during La Niña winters.

This jet stream pattern has been in effect for most of October, and is a main reason why Colorado has stayed mostly dry and Montana has been consistently snowy this fall.

The weather service splits Colorado in half with regards to its winter precipitation predictions. The northern half of the state is forecast to have equal chances of above-average or below-average snowfall. The southern portion of the state, however, is favored to have drier-than-average weather. Gunnison County sits on the dividing line.

Worsening drought and warmer-than-average temperatures are predicted for all of Colorado this winter. Drought in Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California and Texas will continue, worsen or develop, according to the winter outlook.

Blue Mesa Reservoir did not fill to capacity this summer, and unregulated flows into the reservoir were 64 percent of average this year. The water level in Blue Mesa dropped to 50% of capacity this month. The major water sources for the reservoir — the Gunnison River and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison — were flowing at about 53% of average as of Monday.

Aspinall Unit operations update #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Aspinall Unit operations update: 400 CFS in Black Canyon #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1350 cfs to 1250 cfs on Monday, September 28th. Releases are being lowered while the Crystal powerplant is offline for maintenance. Diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel have also dropped over the last part of September. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release change has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September and 790 cfs for October.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 450 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 900 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 400 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

Aspinall Unit operations update: Turning down to 1350 CFS September 23, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Blue Mesa Reservoir. MichaelKirsh / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1450 cfs to 1350 cfs on Wednesday, September 23rd. Releases are being lowered while the Crystal powerplant is offline for maintenance. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release change has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 550 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 450 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Aspinall Unit Operations update: Turning down to 450 CFS in Black Canyon September 3, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Black Canyon via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1500 cfs to 1450 cfs on Thursday, September 3rd. Releases are being adjusted to bring flows closer to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 500 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 450 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit Operations update: 500 CFS in Black Canyon August 31, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Black Canyon National Park July 2020. Photo credit: Claire Codling/The Department of Interior

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1600 cfs to 1500 cfs on Monday, August 31st. Releases are being adjusted to bring flows closer to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 500 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

#Drought conditions take their toll on Blue Mesa and other area reservoirs — The Montrose Daily Press #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Blue Mesa Reservoir September 2017

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

As drought conditions hammer the state, area reservoirs are shrinking, with Blue Mesa predicted to end the year at 23 feet below its winter target.

Despite the past winter season bringing nearly average snowpack, runoff throughout the Gunnison Basin fell well below average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s spring forecast and runoff review, provided Aug. 20.

Warm weather brought the snowpack off the mountains early and summer monsoons failed to provide much of a meaningful drink, while extraordinarily hot, dry conditions persist.

For the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association’s storage accounts in area reservoirs, conditions are mixed.

Taylor Park Reservoir

Taylor Park Reservoir, which is at about 72 percent of full capacity, is OK for the association, manager Steve Anderson said. The UVWUA’s storage account there is full, with only about 20,000 acre feet used.

“That’s not the case with our storage in Ridgway (Reservoir). We’ll use all our storage this year out of Ridgway. We’ll have to replenish that one with the winter,” Anderson said.

Ridgway Dam

The UVWUA has been running its delivery of water to shareholders at 80 percent. “Which, in a year like we’ve had, is good,” Anderson said. “With the limited supply, we’ve managed to meet demand at 80 percent.”

The largest impoundment managed in the Aspinall Unit, Blue Mesa Reservoir, peaked at 604,000 acre feet, which is 25 feet below full.

As of Aug. 20, the reservoir was at 521,000 acre feet and peak flow targets for the Black Canyon and lower Gunnison River at Whitewater were met, although the base flow targets for Whitewater were lowered under drought rule provisions.

Aspinall Unit

Paonia Reservoir had shriveled to 2 percent of full capacity, while Silver Jack was reported at 46 percent of full.

Paonia is basically empty, but that isn’t unusual, given the dry year, BuRec hydrologist Erik Knight said.

Paonia Reservoir

“They chose to use their full supply of reservoir water as best they could, but being a small reservoir, sometimes it only lasts until August. So it’s not surprising, at least to us or them, that it’s gone already,” he said.

The reservoir is expected to stay empty as long as more senior water right priorities keep the call on the North Fork of the Gunnison, Knight said.

Other reservoirs in the Aspinall fared better, with Ridgway showing at 71 percent, Crystal at 88 percent and Morrow Point at 94 percent.

Bureau of Reclamation’s spring forecast and runoff review noted the early melt-off of the snowpack. Although rains at the start of June kept flows into reservoirs in the Aspinall Unit elevated longer than was expected, those levels plunged to “much below normal” by mid-month. Monsoon activity was anemic, providing “almost no precipitation this summer,” the report also said.

Since runoff ended, hot and dry conditions have prevailed, with near-record dry conditions occurring in April and May. Although those actual conditions caused a higher than normal forecast error, actual runoff volume still fell within the lower range of predictions.

The National Weather Service’s August weather outlook did not hold encouraging news. It found a high probability of below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures heading into fall…

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows all of Colorado in at least moderate drought, with Montrose and surrounding counties in either severe or extreme drought.

The monitor on Aug. 20 noted temperature-breaking records in cities across the West, as well as massive wildfires that broke out in California. The monitor’s report, too, calls the monsoon season a “bust” for much of the Southwest.

Aspinall Unit operations update: Releases to turn down 50 CFS on August 17, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1650 cfs to 1600 cfs on Monday, August 17th. Releases are being adjusted to bring flows closer to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 650 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update: Baseflow target adjusted to 900 CFS, August 13, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Blue Mesa Reservoir, Curecanti National Recreation Area. Photo credit: Victoria Stauffenberg via Wikimedian Commons

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 1600 cfs to 1650 cfs on Thursday, August 13th. Releases are being adjusted to raise flows back to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently below the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to trend up toward the baseflow target after the release increase has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 650 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update: ~1050 CFS in the Gunnison Tunnel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 1550 cfs to 1600 cfs on Friday, August 7th. Releases are being adjusted to raise flows back to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently below the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to trend up toward the baseflow target after the release increase has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 550 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall unit operations update: 500 CFS in Black Canyon starting August 5, 2020

Black Canyon July 2020. Photo credit: Cari Bischoff

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 1450 cfs to 1500 cfs on Wednesday, August 5th. Releases are being adjusted to raise flows back to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently below the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to trend up toward the baseflow target after the release increase has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 450 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 500 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update: 1050 CFS through the Gunnison Tunnel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1550 cfs to 1450 cfs on Tuesday, July 21st. Releases are being adjusted to maintain flows near the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The July 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 57% of average for April-July inflows.

There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 550 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 450 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Grand opening of the Gunnison Tunnel in Colorado 1909. Photo credit USBR.

Aspinall Unit operations update: 750 CFS in Black Canyon #runoff

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased to 1650 cfs on Tuesday, June 30th. Releases are being adjusted to maintain flows near the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The June 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 59% of average for April-July inflows.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for June through August.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 750 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 650 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

Aspinall Unit operations update: 1040 CFS through the Gunnison Tunnel

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased to 1650 cfs on Friday, June 19th. Releases are being increased to maintain flows in the lower Gunnison River. The June 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 59% of average for April-July inflows.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently below the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to return to levels above the baseflow target once the release increase has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for June through August.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 430 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 630 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

Aspinall Unit Operations Update

Aspinall Unit April – July, 2020 Forecasted Inflow

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir
Current Forecast (June 1) = 395,000 AF (59% of average)

Blue Mesa Reservoir current conditions
Content = 595,000 AF (72% full)
Elevation = 7491.7 ft
Inflow = 2200 cfs

Crystal Release = 1450 cfs
Gunnison Tunnel diversion = 1050 cfs
Gunnison River flow = 430 cfs

Spring Operations Summary

Aspinall Unit Operations ROD

Hydrologic Category = Moderately Dry
Peak Flow = 4510 cfs
Duration at Peak Flow = 1 day

Baseflow Target: June/July/Aug = 1050 cfs

(Point of measurement is the Gunnison River near Grand Junction streamgage, commonly called the Gunnison River at Whitewater)

Black Canyon Water Right

Peak Flow = 2840 cfs (24 hour duration)
Shoulder Flow Target = 300 cfs (May 1 – July 25)

(Point of measurement is the Gunnison River below Gunnison Tunnel streamgage at the upstream boundary of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park)

Projected Operations

Gunnison River flows (Black Canyon/Gunnison Gorge)
Currently around 400 cfs, possibly increasing to 600-700 cfs during July-August
Projected Blue Mesa Reservoir maximum fill = 620,000 AF at 7495 ft elevation
Projected Blue Mesa Reservoir conditions on Dec 31 = 473,000 AF at 7475 ft elevation

Click here to read the current Aspinall Unit Forecast.

Aspinall Unit dams

@USBR: Aspinall Unit Spring Operations update

Aspinall Unit operations update: April 1st runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 78% of average for April-July inflows

Aspinall Unit dams

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased to 1450 cfs on Thursday, April 9th. Releases are being adjusted to accommodate the change in diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel, which will occur on Friday, April 10th. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 101% of normal. The April 1st runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 78% of average for April-July inflows.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for April and May.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 720 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 430 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 920 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 530 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update: 550 CFS in the Black Canyon, diversions through the Gunnison Tunnel = 300 CFS

Sunrise Black Canyon via Bob Berwyn

From email from Reclamation Erik Knight:

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased to 1050 cfs on Wednesday, March 25th. Releases are being adjusted to accommodate the change in diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel, which will occur on Thursday, March 26th. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 106% of normal. The March 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 78% of average for April-July inflows. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for January through March.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are at 300 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 400 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be at 500 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 550 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update: March 1, 2020 runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 78% of average

Blue Mesa Reservoir, Curecanti National Recreation Area. Photo credit: Victoria Stauffenberg via Wikimedian Commons

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased to 700 cfs on Thursday, March 19th. Releases are being adjusted to accommodate the start of diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel and to lower river flows given the below average runoff forecast. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 103% of normal. The March 1st runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 78% of average for April-July inflows. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for January through March.

Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be at 300 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 400 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update: The February 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 83% of average for April-July inflows

Aspinall Unit dams

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased to 600 cfs on Wednesday, February 26th. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 103% of normal. The February 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 83% of average for April-July inflows. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for January through March.

Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 800 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be at zero and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update: Streamflow forecast for April-July = 87% of average

Gunnison River Basin High/Low graph January 27, 2020 via the NRCS.

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased to 800 cfs on Wednesday, January 29th. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 106% of normal. The Jan 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 87% of average for April-July inflows. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for January through March.

Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 1100 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be at zero and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 800 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

This scheduled release change is subject to changes in river flows and weather conditions. For questions or concerns regarding these operations contact Erik Knight at (970) 248-0629 or e-mail at eknight@usbr.gov

Colorado Drought Monitor January 21, 2020.

Montrose: Aspinall Unit operations meeting January 23, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The next Aspinall Operations meeting will be on Thursday, January 23rd, at the Holiday Inn Express in Montrose. Start time is 1:00.

Aspinall Unit

Aspinall Unit operations update: Blue Mesa Reservoir within one foot of icing target

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit were decreased to 1100 cfs on Thursday, January 2nd. Blue Mesa Reservoir elevation ended the year within a foot of the icing target. Releases will be maintained at this level for the near future with possible adjustments made when new runoff forecast information becomes available. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for January through March.

Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 1100 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Aspinall Unit operations update: Blue Mesa releases to be bumped up to meet reservoir icing targets

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased to 1600 cfs on Monday, December 9th. Blue Mesa Reservoir elevation remains above the winter icing target level. Releases will be maintained at this level with the goal of lowering the reservoir to the icing target elevation of 7490 feet by December 31st. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for September through December.

Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 1000 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be at zero and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 1600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit

Aspinall Unit operations update: Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs

Gunnison River Basin. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 200 cfs, today, September 30th. Releases will be decreased by 200 cfs late Friday, October 4th. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for September through December.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will increase to 800 cfs today. At the end of this week Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will return to 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall unit operations update: Flows in the Gunnison Tunnel ~= 1030 CFS

Grand opening of the Gunnison Tunnel in Colorado 1909. Photo credit USBR.

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 100 cfs, today, September 9th. Reservoir contents at Morrow Pt and Crystal have sufficiently recovered to allow for higher releases. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for September through December.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 1030 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 500 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 1030 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit Operations update: Streamflow in the Black Canyon ~515 cfs

From email from the Bureau of Reclamation (Ryan Christianson):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased by 100 cfs at approximately 10am on Tuesday, September 3rd. Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for September. This release decrease will allow for the recovery of storage in Crystal Reservoir that was utilized in response to upstream facility outages.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are approximately 1200 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 615 cfs. After this release change, the Gunnison Tunnel diversions will remain near 1200 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 515 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

The August “#GunnisonRiver Basin News” is hot off the presses

Click here to read the newsletter from the Gunnison Basin Roundtable. Here’s an excerpt:

August in the Basin: High and Dry!

Bountiful snowmelt and increased soil moisture conditions, resulted in “boomer” inflows, boosting basin reservoirs levels and causing an amazing recovery from last year’s low levels – this included Blue Mesa, Colorado’s largest reservoir – with over 160 percent of average inflow volume. Although most of the snow has melted, the Upper Basin rivers are still flowing at higher than average rates, even in the face of drying conditions (July and August precipitation has been generally below average).

Also, very importantly Lake Powell – the Upper Basin’s largest water storage and management facility received an inflow volume of 145% of average.

Current conditions and Aspinall Unit operations

Aspinall Unit dams

@USBR: The next Aspinall Operations meeting will be held on Thursday, August 15th, at the Elk Creek Visitor Center at Blue Mesa Reservoir. Start time is 1:00 PM

Aspinall Unit operations update: Gunnison Tunnel diversions = 950 cfs, Gunnison River through the Black Canyon = 2550 cfs

Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Ryan Christianson):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit were increased by 500 cfs beginning on Friday, July 26th and are scheduled to continue at that rate into the near future in order to prevent Blue Mesa Reservoir from overfilling. At the current inflow and release rate it is projected that Blue Mesa Reservoir would begin spilling, as the reservoir is now full. The current forecast for the April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 1,075,000 AF of inflow, which is 159% of average. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1500 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1500 cfs for July and August.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 2550 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update: 2150 cfs expected in the Black Canyon

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 650 cfs between Tuesday and Wednesday, July 9 and 10. This release increase is necessary to prevent Blue Mesa Reservoir from overfilling. At the current release rate it is projected that Blue Mesa Reservoir would spill within 2 weeks. The current forecast for the April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 1,060,000 AF of inflow, which is 157% of average. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1500 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1500 cfs for July and August.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 850 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 1500 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 850 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 2150 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Aspinall Unit Spring Peak Operations Update

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The spring peak operation is nearing completion. The peak release period of the spring peak operation has concluded. Flows at the Whitewater gage were over 14,350 cfs for six days and a peak daily flow of 16,500 cfs occurred on June 9th.

The ramp down period has begun and releases will continue to be decreased through Thursday, June 20th. The ramp down schedule is shown below. Daily flows for the Gunnison River below the Gunnison Tunnel should be considered as approximations. Actual flows may vary from the numbers below if side inflows to Crystal Reservoir increase or decrease the spill rate beyond what is currently forecast.

#Runoff/#Snowpack news: It looks like Blue Mesa Reservoir will fill this year

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Aldis Strautins, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said so far snow has been melting off in a manageable fashion, with some minor flooding in lowland locations but nothing serious so far.

“We’re not totally out of the woods yet. It bears monitoring and keeping aware of the situation,” he said.

He said the Colorado River is coming up and may peak locally around Sunday. Andy Martsolf, emergency services director for the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, said flows on the Colorado River at the state line are expected to peak at about 36,000 cubic feet per second this weekend. That’s up considerably from the 24,900 cfs being reported there by the U.S. Geological Survey Wednesday.

Officials expect a possible second peak later this month.

The Gunnison River already is cranking, but that’s by design, under the operational protocol for the Aspinall Unit dams on the river. Erik Knight, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation, said releases began on Saturday in an attempt to hit a target goal of flows of 14,350 cfs for 10 days on the lower Gunnison at Whitewater, to help critical habitat for endangered fish in that stretch.

He said it appears flows will fall 1,000 cfs short of that goal.

The National Weather Service has issued a flood advisory in the lower Gunnison River due to the extra water releases affecting river levels there. Strautins said it wasn’t a flood warning, but an effort to make people aware of dangers such as banks giving way due to the high water.

Knight said it doesn’t appear that flows through Delta will exceed 13,000 cfs during the 10-day release. That’s below the level at which the Bureau of Reclamation would cut back releases during the 10-day period to protect the community from flooding.

Wilma Erven, Delta’s parks, recreation and golf director, said some water is showing up in a park at the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre rivers, something that can occur in years like this one…

Strautins pointed to a mix of warmer and cooler weather in the forecast in coming days as opposed to a prolonged hot stretch that could drive water levels particularly high, with cloud cover also expected to moderate melting of snow.

Knight, who several months ago could hardly have imagined Blue Mesa Reservoir filling this year after last year’s low snowpack and drought, said it now appears almost certain to fill…

…the snowpack levels remaining in areas such as southwest Colorado are impressive, as evidenced by the mere fact that many sites that normally are dry by now still have snow.

According to one of the data sets [Brian] Domonkos uses, current snowpack levels in those combined basins and in the Gunnison basin are the second-highest on record, he said. But peak levels this year in basins in western Colorado don’t compare nearly as well to other high snowpack years, with the southwest Colorado basins ranking perhaps fourth or fifth, and other basins not coming in that high, Domonkos said.

He said one of his statistical tools indicates there are about 12.3 inches of snow water equivalent left in the Gunnison basin, which peaked at 24 inches.

“So we’re halfway through the melt of that peak snowpack,” he said.

The Colorado basin has about 11 inches of snow water equivalent left, after peaking at about 20 inches, Domonkos said.

He said snowpack normally melts at a rate of an inch a day or a little less of snow water equivalent.

“So snowpack on average probably won’t be hanging around too much longer,” he said.

While more than half of the Colorado basin’s snowpack already is melted, that snowpack was above-average, and Martsolf said the remaining snowpack is still about 71 percent of an average peak snowpack for the basin.

“We’re definitely melted off from where we would be for a seasonal peak but we still have a ways to go,” he said…

Nowhere in western Colorado is the combined threat of rising rivers and avalanche debris causing more concern than in Hinsdale County. Federal, state and county funding is paying the nearly $1 million cost for the ongoing, emergency removal of the historic, defunct Hidden Treasure Dam. While it no longer holds water, there’s concern that avalanche debris washing down Henson Creek combined with high water flows could destroy it, releasing water and debris and causing downstream flooding…

Both Henson and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison creeks pose threats to Lake City. Lyon said there’s currently no flooding occurring, but creek levels have come up considerably in recent days. Warming temperatures and possible rainstorms both could influence what ultimately occurs in coming days and weeks.

#Runoff news: Inflows to Blue Mesa Reservoir = ~200,000 acre-feet as of May 20, 2019

From The Vail Daily (Scott N. Miller) via The Aspen Times:

At the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District’s May 20 State of the River gathering, participants heard a presentation from Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist and assistant supervisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Wetlaufer talked about state and regional snowpack and provided some streamflow forecasts. The news was good on both topics.

It isn’t just the Eagle River drainage that’s had a good snow year. Across Colorado, the average “snow water equivalent” in the snowpack stands at 186 percent of the 30-year median. After the drought of 2018, that’s fantastic news.

According to Wetlaufer, Southern Colorado — the part of the state that most needed a big snow year — was the area where the snowpack is greatest. The snowpack in the San Juan, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins — closest to the Four Corners area — stood at 294 percent of the median on May 20.

Wetlaufer said that runoff so far has added about 200,000 acre feet of water to one of the state’s biggest reservoirs, Blue Mesa, near Gunnison. At the end of 2018, that reservoir was at its lowest level since 1984.

All the good news across the state is good news to local fishing guides and raft companies.

Sage Outdoor Adventures has a permit to raft Gore Creek through Vail. That didn’t happen last year. Cole Bangert of Sage said in an average year, the company can run raft trips through Vail for three or four weeks per season, mostly in June.

Bangert said he expects a longer season this year, due both to abundant snow and a slow melt so far.

Clear Creek Canyon via Bob Berwyn

From CBS 4 Denver (Michael Abeyta):

[Bruce Becker] says with all the snow we’ve been getting, water flow in the state’s rivers could be the highest we’ve seen since 2011 or 2013…

Add to that the cool start we’ve gotten to the season and conditions are almost perfect for a long and fun season…

Whitewater rafting and kayaking outfitters across the state hope Becker is right because last year’s hot dry summer and winter really hurt business.

“Our other outfitters in southwest Colorado practically had no season. My season on Clear Creek which is my main run was cut a month short and when you only have three months, losing one month hurts.”

On Sunday, a man was in Becker’s office booking a trip for late July. With folks already booking their trips months in advance, he is optimistic this summer on the river will be a good one for everyone.

Aspinall Unit operations update: Crystal Reservoir spill forecasted for May 27, 2019

Aspinall Unit

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The May 15th forecast for the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 990,000 acre-feet. This is 147% of the 30 year average. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin peaked at 143% of average. Blue Mesa Reservoir current content is 457,000 acre-feet which is 55% of full. Current elevation is 7473.2 ft. Maximum content at Blue Mesa Reservoir is 829,500 acre-feet at an elevation of 7519.4 ft.

Based on the May forecasts, the Black Canyon Water Right and Aspinall Unit ROD peak flow targets are listed below:

Black Canyon Water Right
The peak flow target is equal to 7,158 cfs for a duration of 24 hours.
The shoulder flow target is 966 cfs, for the period between May 1 and July 25.

Aspinall Unit Operations ROD
The year type is currently classified as Moderately Wet.
The peak flow target will be 14,350 cfs and the duration target at this flow will be 10 days.
The half bankfull target will be 8,070 cfs and the duration target at this flow will be 20 days.
(The criteria have been met for the drought rule that allows half-bankfull flows to be reduced from 40 days to 20 days.)

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations ROD, releases from the Aspinall Unit will be made in an attempt to match the peak flow of the North Fork of the Gunnison River to maximize the potential of meeting the desired peak at the Whitewater gage, while simultaneously meeting the Black Canyon Water Right peak flow amount. The latest forecast for flows on the North Fork of the Gunnison River keeps river flows below their projected peak flow level for most of the 10 day forecast period. Warmer weather and higher flows are forecast to return by the first days of June.

Therefore ramp up for the spring peak operation will begin on Wednesday, May 22nd, with the intent of timing releases with this potential higher flow period on the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Releases from Crystal Dam will be ramped up according to the guidelines specified in the EIS, with 2 release changes per day, until Crystal begins to spill. The release schedule for Crystal Dam is:

Crystal Dam will be at full powerplant and bypass release on May 26th. Crystal Reservoir will begin spilling by May 27th and the peak release from Crystal Dam should be reached on May 30th or 31st. The flows in the Gunnison River after that date will be dependent on the timing of the spill and the level of tributary flow contribution. Estimates of those numbers will be determined in the upcoming days.

The current projection for spring peak operations shows flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon between 7,000 cfs and 8,000 cfs for 10 days in order to achieve the desired peak flow and duration at Whitewater. Actual flows will be dependent on the downstream contribution of the North Fork of the Gunnison River and other tributaries. Higher tributary flows will lead to lower releases from the Aspinall Unit and vice versa.

Crystal dam spilling May 2009

Aspinall unit operations update: Blue Mesa Reservoir is currently projected to fill to an approximate peak content of 795,000 acre-feet

Blue Mesa Reservoir

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The May 1st forecast for the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 970,000 acre-feet. This is 144% of the 30 year average. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin peaked at 143% of average. Blue Mesa Reservoir current content is 384,000 acre-feet which is 46% of full. Current elevation is 7462 ft. Maximum content at Blue Mesa Reservoir is 829,500 acre-feet at an elevation of 7519.4 ft.

Based on the May 1st forecast, the Black Canyon Water Right and Aspinall Unit ROD peak flow targets are listed below:

Black Canyon Water Right
The peak flow target is equal to 7,158 cfs for a duration of 24 hours.
The shoulder flow target is 966 cfs, for the period between May 1 and July 25.

Aspinall Unit Operations ROD
The year type is currently classified as Moderately Wet.
The peak flow target will be 14,350 cfs and the duration target at this flow will be 10 days.
The half bankfull target will be 8,070 cfs and the duration target at this flow will be 20 days.
(The criteria have been met for the drought rule that allows half-bankfull flows to be reduced from 40 days to 20 days.)

Projected Spring Operations
During spring operations, releases from the Aspinall Unit will be made in an attempt to match the peak flow of the North Fork of the Gunnison River to maximize the potential of meeting the desired peak at the Whitewater gage, while simultaneously meeting the Black Canyon Water Right peak flow amount. The magnitude of release necessary to meet the desired peak at the Whitewater gage will be dependent on the flow contribution from the North Fork of the Gunnison River and other tributaries downstream from the Aspinall Unit. Current projections for spring peak operations show that flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon could be over 8,000 cfs for 10 days in order to achieve the desired peak flow and duration at Whitewater. With this runoff forecast and corresponding downstream targets, Blue Mesa Reservoir is currently projected to fill to an elevation of around 7515.5 feet with an approximate peak content of 795,000 acre-feet.

Aspinall Unit operations update: 960 CFS in Black Canyon

Sunrise Black Canyon via Bob Berwyn

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 130 cfs on Friday, May 3rd. This will bring flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon up to shoulder flow levels, as described in the decree for the Black Canyon water right. The current forecast for the April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 970,000 AF of inflow, which is 144% of average. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for May.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 680 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 830 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 680 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 960 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update: 825 cfs through Black Canyon

Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 250 cfs on Wednesday, May 1st. This will bring flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon up to shoulder flow levels, as described in the decree for the Black Canyon water right. The current forecast for the April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 860,000 AF of inflow, which is 127% of average. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for April and May.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 675 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 575 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 675 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 825 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

@USBR: Aspinall Unit Forecast for Spring Operations: Current projected inflow to Blue Mesa Reservoir = 925,000 acre-feet

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The April 1 forecast for the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 925,000 acre-feet. This is 137% of the 30 year average. Snowpack in the upper Gunnison River basin is currently 132% of average. Blue Mesa Reservoir current content is 259,000 acre-feet which is 31% of full. Current elevation is 7440 feet. Maximum content at Blue Mesa Reservoir is 829,500 acre-feet at an elevation of 7519.4 feet.

Black Canyon Water Right
The peak flow and shoulder flow components of the Black Canyon Water Right will be determined by the May 1 forecast of the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir. If the May 1 forecast is equal to the current forecast of 925,000 acre-feet of runoff volume, the peak flow target will be 6,513 cfs for a duration of 24 hours. The shoulder flow target will be 915 cfs, for the period between May 1 and July 25. The point of measurement of flows to satisfy the Black Canyon Water Right is at the Gunnison River below Gunnison Tunnel streamgage at the upstream boundary of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Aspinall Unit Operations ROD
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the peak flow and duration flow targets in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, will be determined by the forecast of the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir and the hydrologic year type. At the time of the spring operation, if the forecast is equal to the current forecast of 925,000 acre-feet of runoff volume, the hydrologic year type will be set as Moderately Wet. Under a Moderately Wet year the peak flow target will be 14,350 cfs and the duration target at this flow will be 10 days. The duration target for the half-bankfull flow of 8,070 cfs will be 20 days. The criteria have been met for the drought rule that allows half-bankfull flows to be reduced from 40 days to 20 days.

Projected Spring Operations
During spring operations, releases from the Aspinall Unit will be made in an attempt to match the peak flow of the North Fork of the Gunnison River to maximize the potential of meeting the desired peak at the Whitewater gage, while simultaneously meeting the Black Canyon Water Right peak flow amount. The magnitude of release necessary to meet the desired peak at the Whitewater gage will be dependent on the flow contribution from the North Fork of the Gunnison River and other tributaries downstream from the Aspinall Unit. Current projections for spring peak operations show that flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon could be over 7,500 cfs for 10 days in order to achieve the desired peak flow and duration at Whitewater. With this runoff forecast and corresponding downstream targets, Blue Mesa Reservoir is currently projected to fill to an elevation of around 7500 feet with an approximate peak content of 660,000 acre-feet.

Aspinall Unit dams